Minister attacks IT used to risk-assess criminals

[A shorter version of this article will be on the homepage of ComputerWeekly.com]

A Justice minister has taken the rare step of criticising a front-line system in her own department.

The “Oasys” Offender Assessment System is designed, in part, to protect the public from offenders who could cause harm if allowed into the community.

Oasys helps officials assess the risk of re-offending by, among others, sex offenders, terrorists and those with mental health problems.

Hundreds of thousands of assessments are carried out each year on the system, which runs on Oracle 11g Enterprise Edition.

Oasys helps prison and probation officers work out whether murderers and other criminals can go into an open prison.



It also assesses the risks of harm to the public of letting some criminals into the community, and of moving offenders within and between courts and prisons.

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, told MPs this month that probation staff use Oasys to assess offenders’ risk of reoffending and risk of harm, including those convicted of terrorist or terrorism-related offences.

Oasys – frustrating to fill in and too slow

But Straw’s colleague, Maria Eagle, a minister at the Ministry of Justice, told MPs at a different debate in a Commons debate this month: “I accept that Oasys is deeply frustrating to fill in and far too slow.”

The system has 750 data fields, many of which are for users to input information.

Nearly two years the then prisons minister David Hanson promised improvements to Oasys.

And the trade union Napo, which represents more than 9,000 probation and family court staff, complained in January 2009 that it takes on average one hour 40 minutes to complete each assessment on Oasys of an offender’s risk of causing harm. Each subsequent review takes “upwards of 30 minutes”, said Napo.

Tim Wilson, National Chair of Napo said in a letter in January 2009: “There are fewer individual items which have generated more complaints from our members than OASys, and while many staff find it useful in many respects, there remains a great deal of criticism of its shortcomings.”

He said that OASys needs to be streamlined so as to make it more user-friendly, and made less “laborious and less duplicative of effort”.

Wilson added: “In-putting on OASys tends to be in a prose form which is time-saving for the PSR [pre-sentence report] author, but is not so readily interpretable by a subsequent holder/reviewer of that case.”

MoJ’s press office defends Oasys

The Ministry of Justice suggests that Maria Eagle made a mistake in criticising Oasys. A spokeswoman said that Eagle “inadvertently conflated Oasys with the issue raised by the National Association of Probation Officers of London probation officers spending more time in front of a computer than with offenders, which are two separate things”.

The MoJ spokeswoman told Computer Weekly: “An upgrade to the OASys system was rolled out in August.  The changes it contained were designed to streamline processes where possible, to allow practitioners to spend more time on high risk offenders and less on lower risk offenders.”

Maria Eagle had told MPs that Oasys is fundamental to the work of probation staff and officers.  

She said: “The work done on computer is a fundamental part of the work that probation staff and officers do, so we cannot promise to remove it.”

MoJ’s Nomis system also criticised

Earlier this month another system used by the Ministry of Justice –  C-Nomis – was the subject of a highly critical report of the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee.

The committee was unable to discover how £161m invested in the project was spent. The cost of the system more than doubled from £234m to £513m – and it was scaled back.

Oasys suppliers and what the system does

Oasys was commissioned by HM Prison Service to cut the rate of re-offending.

About 2,000 Oasys assessments are completed each day. EDS, now owned by HP, and its partner Valtech, jointly developed Oasys to a design and specifications laid down by the Home Office. It was introduced in 2003.

HP has said that Oasys “evaluates the likelihood of an offender being reconvicted and the risk of harm the offender presents personally and to others by examining factors such as offending history and current offence; financial management and income; relationships; lifestyle; and drug and alcohol misuse”

Prisons staff usually complete an OAsys assessment within eight weeks of a criminal’s arrival after sentencing and on completion of “significant milestones”. But staff shortages have led to backlogs of assessments.

The two separate Oasys applications in prison and probation are due to be replaced during 2011 by a single application developed within the OASys R project – a scheme within NOMIS programme.

Paul Wilson, Chief Officer, London Probation said:

“Reviewing and sharing information gained during offender appointments is an essential part of public protection work. The use of technology to disseminate information or sophisticated programmes to aid our risk assessment and analysis is not bureaucracy but valuable frontline activity and is part of modern office practice.”

Minister’s comment on Oasys in full

“In answer to a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington, I accept that OASys is deeply frustrating to fill in and far too slow.

“We are looking with our staff at ways of improving and streamlining the process, and we hope to be able to make progress on that.

“However, it is important that we do not simply say that any time spent in front of a computer is wasted and somehow means that the system is bureaucratic. The work done on computer is a fundamental part of the work that probation staff and officers do, so we cannot promise to remove it completely.”

Link:

House of Commons debate on the probation service – at which MPs and the minister raise the question of Oasys and IT in prisons and the probation service.

Napo letter of January 2009 which criticised Oasys and other IT

Probation staff to go on strike over workloads – Thisisnottingham

Probation work in a “chronic” state – Raining blog

Rehabilitation of offenders impossible? – Nick Cohen political blog

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